The Book Thief



  THE SKY STEALER

  The first raid, as it turned out, was not a raid at all. Had people waited to see the planes, they would have stood there all night. That accounted for the fact that no cuckoo had called from the radio. The Molching Express reported that a certain flak tower operator had become a little overexcited. He’d sworn that he could hear the rattle of planes and see them on the horizon. He sent the word.

  “He might have done it on purpose,” Hans Hubermann pointed out. “Would you want to sit in a flak tower, shooting up at planes carrying bombs?”

  Sure enough, as Max continued reading the article in the basement, it was reported that the man with the outlandish imagination had been stood down from his original duty. His fate was most likely some sort of service elsewhere.

  “Good luck to him,” Max said. He seemed to understand as he moved on to the crossword.

  The next raid was real.

  On the night of September 19, the cuckoo called from the radio, and it was followed by a deep, informative voice. It listed Molching as a possible target.

  Again, Himmel Street was a trail of people, and again, Papa left his accordion. Rosa reminded him to take it, but he refused. “I didn’t take it last time,” he explained, “and we lived.” War clearly blurred the distinction between logic and superstition.

  Eerie air followed them down to the Fiedlers’ basement. “I think it’s real tonight,” said Mr. Fiedler, and the children quickly realized that their parents were even more afraid this time around. Reacting the only way they knew, the youngest of them began to wail and cry as the room seemed to swing.

  Even from the cellar, they could vaguely hear the tune of bombs. Air pressure shoved itself down like a ceiling, as if to mash the earth. A bite was taken of Molching’s empty streets.

  Rosa held furiously on to Liesel’s hand.

  The sound of crying children kicked and punched.

  Even Rudy stood completely erect, feigning nonchalance, tensing himself against the tension. Arms and elbows fought for room. Some of the adults tried to calm the infants. Others were unsuccessful in calming themselves.

  “Shut that kid up!” Frau Holtzapfel clamored, but her sentence was just another hapless voice in the warm chaos of the shelter. Grimy tears were loosened from children’s eyes, and the smell of night breath, underarm sweat, and overworn clothes was stirred and stewed in what was now a cauldron swimming with humans.

  Although they were right next to each other, Liesel was forced to call out, “Mama?” Again, “Mama, you’re squashing my hand!”

  “What?”

  “My hand!”

  Rosa released her, and for comfort, to shut out the din of the basement, Liesel opened one of her books and began to read. The book on top of the pile was The Whistler and she spoke it aloud to help her concentrate. The opening paragraph was numb in her ears.

  “What did you say?” Mama roared, but Liesel ignored her. She remained focused on the first page.

  When she turned to page two, it was Rudy who noticed. He paid direct attention to what Liesel was reading, and he tapped his brother and his sisters, telling them to do the same. Hans Hubermann came closer and called out, and soon, a quietness started bleeding through the crowded basement. By page three, everyone was silent but Liesel.

  She didn’t dare to look up, but she could feel their frightened eyes hanging on to her as she hauled the words in and breathed them out. A voice played the notes inside her. This, it said, is your accordion.

  The sound of the turning page carved them in half.

  Liesel read on.

  For at least twenty minutes, she handed out the story. The youngest kids were soothed by her voice, and everyone else saw visions of the whistler running from the crime scene. Liesel did not. The book thief saw only the mechanics of the words—their bodies stranded on the paper, beaten down for her to walk on. Somewhere, too, in the gaps between a period and the next capital letter, there was also Max. She remembered reading to him when he was sick. Is he in the basement? she wondered. Or is he stealing a glimpse of the sky again?

  A NICE THOUGHT

  One was a book thief.

  The other stole the sky.

  • • •

  Everyone waited for the ground to shake.

  That was still an immutable fact, but at least they were distracted now, by the girl with the book. One of the younger boys contemplated crying again, but Liesel stopped at that moment and imitated her papa, or even Rudy for that matter. She winked at him and resumed.

  Only when the sirens leaked into the cellar again did someone interrupt her. “We’re safe,” said Mr. Jenson.

  “Shhh!” said Frau Holtzapfel.

  Liesel looked up. “There are only two paragraphs till the end of the chapter,” she said, and she continued reading with no fanfare or added speed. Just the words.

  DUDEN DICTIONARY MEANING #4

  Wort—Word:

  A meaningful unit of

  language / a promise / a

  short remark, statement,

  or conversation.

  Related words: term,

  name, expression.

  Out of respect, the adults kept everyone quiet, and Liesel finished chapter one of The Whistler.

  On their way up the stairs, the children rushed by her, but many of the older people—even Frau Holtzapfel, even Pfiffikus (how appropriate, considering the title she read from)—thanked the girl for the distraction. They did so as they made their way past and hurried from the house to see if Himmel Street had sustained any damage.

  Himmel Street was untouched.

  The only sign of war was a cloud of dust migrating from east to west. It looked through the windows, trying to find a way inside, and as it simultaneously thickened and spread, it turned the trail of humans into apparitions.

  There were no people on the street anymore.

  They were rumors carrying bags.

  At home, Papa told Max all about it. “There’s fog and ash—I think they let us out too early.” He looked to Rosa. “Should I go out? To see if they need help where the bombs dropped?”

  Rosa was not impressed. “Don’t be so idiotic,” she said. “You’ll choke on the dust. No, no, Saukerl, you’re staying here.” A thought came to her. She looked at Hans very seriously now. In fact, her face was crayoned with pride. “Stay here and tell him about the girl.” Her voice loudened, just slightly. “About the book.”

  Max gave her some added attention.

  “The Whistler,” Rosa informed him. “Chapter one.” She explained exactly what had happened in the shelter.

  As Liesel stood in a corner of the basement, Max watched her and rubbed a hand along his jaw. Personally, I think that was the moment he conceived the next body of work for his sketchbook.

  The Word Shaker.

  He imagined the girl reading in the shelter. He must have watched her literally handing out the words. However, as always, he must also have seen the shadow of Hitler. He could probably already hear his footsteps coming toward Himmel Street and the basement, for later.

  After a lengthy pause, he looked ready to speak, but Liesel beat him to it.

  “Did you see the sky tonight?”

  “No.” Max looked at the wall and pointed. On it, they all watched the words and the picture he’d painted more than a year earlier—the rope and the dripping sun. “Only that one tonight,” and from there, no more was spoken. Nothing but thoughts.

  Max, Hans, and Rosa I cannot account for, but I know that Liesel Meminger was thinking that if the bombs ever landed on Himmel Street, not only did Max have less chance of survival than everyone else, but he would die completely alone.

  FRAU HOLTZAPFEL’S OFFER

  In the morning, the damage was inspected. No one died, but two apartment blocks were reduced to pyramids of rubble, and Rudy’s favorite Hitler Youth field had an enormous bowl spooned out of it. Half the town stood around its circumference. People estimated its depth, to compare it with their shelt
ers. Several boys and girls spat into it.

  Rudy was standing next to Liesel. “Looks like they need to fertilize again.”

  When the next few weeks were raid-free, life almost returned to normal. Two telling moments, however, were on their way.

  THE DUAL EVENTS

  OF OCTOBER

  The hands of Frau Holtzapfel.

  The parade of Jews.

  Her wrinkles were like slander. Her voice was akin to a beating with a stick.

  It was actually quite fortunate that they saw Frau Holtzapfel coming from the living room window, for her knuckles on the door were hard and decisive. They meant business.

  Liesel heard the words she dreaded.

  “You go and answer it,” Mama said, and the girl, knowing only too well what was good for her, did as she was told.

  “Is your mama home?” Frau Holtzapfel inquired. Constructed of fifty-year-old wire, she stood on the front step, looking back every so often to view the street. “Is that swine of a mother of yours here today?”

  Liesel turned and called out.

  DUDEN DICTIONARY MEANING #5

  Gelegenheit—Opportunity:

  A chance for advancement or progress.

  Related words:

  prospect, opening, break.

  Soon, Rosa was behind her. “What do you want here? You want to spit on my kitchen floor now, too?”

  Frau Holtzapfel was not deterred in the slightest. “Is that how you greet everyone who shows up at your front door? What a G’sindel.”

  Liesel watched. She was unfortunate enough to be sandwiched between them. Rosa pulled her out of the way. “Well, are you going to tell me why you’re here or not?”

  Frau Holtzapfel looked once more at the street and back. “I have an offer for you.”

  Mama shifted her weight. “Is that right?”

  “No, not you.” She dismissed Rosa with a shrug of the voice and focused now on Liesel. “You.”

  “Why did you ask for me, then?”

  “Well, I at least need your permission.”

  Oh, Maria, Liesel thought, this is all I need. What the hell can Holtzapfel want with me?

  “I liked that book you read in the shelter.”

  No. You’re not getting it. Liesel was convinced of that. “Yes?”

  “I was hoping to hear the rest of it in the shelter, but it looks like we’re safe for now.” She rolled her shoulders and straightened the wire in her back. “So I want you to come to my place and read it to me.”

  “You’ve got some nerve, Holtzapfel.” Rosa was deciding whether to be furious or not. “If you think—”

  “I’ll stop spitting on your door,” she interrupted. “And I’ll give you my coffee ration.”

  Rosa decided against being furious. “And some flour?”

  “What, are you a Jew? Just the coffee. You can swap the coffee with someone else for the flour.”

  It was decided.

  By everyone but the girl.

  “Good, then, it’s done.”

  “Mama?”

  “Quiet, Saumensch. Go and get the book.” Mama faced Frau Holtzapfel again. “What days suit you?”

  “Monday and Friday, four o’clock. And today, right now.”

  Liesel followed the regimented footsteps to Frau Holtzapfel’s lodging next door, which was a mirror image of the Hubermanns’. If anything, it was slightly larger.

  When she sat down at the kitchen table, Frau Holtzapfel sat directly in front of her but faced the window. “Read,” she said.

  “Chapter two?”

  “No, chapter eight. Of course chapter two! Now get reading before I throw you out.”

  “Yes, Frau Holtzapfel.”

  “Never mind the ‘yes, Frau Holtzapfels.’ Just open the book. We don’t have all day.”

  Good God, Liesel thought. This is my punishment for all that stealing. It’s finally caught up with me.

  She read for forty-five minutes, and when the chapter was finished, a bag of coffee was deposited on the table.

  “Thank you,” the woman said. “It’s a good story.” She turned toward the stove and started on some potatoes. Without looking back, she said, “Are you still here, are you?”

  Liesel took that as her cue to leave. “Danke schön, Frau Holtzapfel.” By the door, when she saw the framed photos of two young men in military uniform, she also threw in a “heil Hitler,” her arm raised in the kitchen.

  “Yes.” Frau Holtzapfel was proud and afraid. Two sons in Russia. “Heil Hitler.” She put her water down to boil and even found the manners to walk the few steps with Liesel to the front door. “Bis morgen?”

  The next day was Friday. “Yes, Frau Holtzapfel. Until tomorrow.”

  Liesel calculated that there were four more reading sessions like that with Frau Holtzapfel before the Jews were marched through Molching.

  They were going to Dachau, to concentrate.

  That makes two weeks, she would later write in the basement. Two weeks to change the world, and fourteen days to ruin it.

  THE LONG WALK TO DACHAU

  Some people said that the truck had broken down, but I can personally testify that this was not the case. I was there.

  What had happened was an ocean sky, with whitecap clouds.

  Also, there was more than just the one vehicle. Three trucks don’t all break down at once.

  When the soldiers pulled over to share some food and cigarettes and to poke at the package of Jews, one of the prisoners collapsed from starvation and sickness. I have no idea where the convoy had traveled from, but it was perhaps four miles from Molching, and many steps more to the concentration camp at Dachau.

  I climbed through the windshield of the truck, found the diseased man, and jumped out the back. His soul was skinny. His beard was a ball and chain. My feet landed loudly in the gravel, though not a sound was heard by a soldier or prisoner. But they could all smell me.

  Recollection tells me that there were many wishes in the back of that truck. Inner voices called out to me.

  Why him and not me?

  Thank God it isn’t me.

  The soldiers, on the other hand, were occupied with a different discussion. The leader squashed his cigarette and asked the others a smoggy question. “When was the last time we took these rats for some fresh air?”

  His first lieutenant choked back a cough. “They could sure use it, couldn’t they?”

  “Well, how about it, then? We’ve got time, don’t we?”

  “We’ve always got time, sir.”

  “And it’s perfect weather for a parade, don’t you think?”

  “It is, sir.”

  “So what are you waiting for?”

  On Himmel Street, Liesel was playing soccer when the noise arrived. Two boys were fighting for the ball in the midfield when everything stopped. Even Tommy Müller could hear it. “What is that?” he asked from his position in goal.

  Everyone turned toward the sound of shuffling feet and regimented voices as they made their way closer.

  “Is that a herd of cows?” Rudy asked. “It can’t be. It never sounds quite like that, does it?”

  Slowly at first, the street of children walked toward the magnetic sound, up toward Frau Diller’s. Once in a while there was added emphasis in the shouting.

  In a tall apartment just around the corner on Munich Street, an old lady with a foreboding voice deciphered for everyone the exact source of the commotion. Up high, in the window, her face appeared like a white flag with moist eyes and an open mouth. Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Liesel’s feet.

  She had gray hair.

  The eyes were dark, dark blue.

  “Die Juden,” she said. “The Jews.”

  DUDEN DICTIONARY MEANING #6

  Elend—Misery:

  Great suffering,

  unhappiness, and distress.

  Related words:

  anguish, torment, despair,

  wretchedness, desolation.

  M
ore people appeared on the street, where a collection of Jews and other criminals had already been shoved past. Perhaps the death camps were kept secret, but at times, people were shown the glory of a labor camp like Dachau.

  Far up, on the other side, Liesel spotted the man with his paint cart. He was running his hand uncomfortably through his hair.

  “Up there,” she pointed out to Rudy. “My papa.”

  They both crossed and made their way up, and Hans Hubermann attempted at first to take them away. “Liesel,” he said. “Maybe …”

  He realized, however, that the girl was determined to stay, and perhaps it was something she should see. In the breezy autumn air, he stood with her. He did not speak.

  On Munich Street, they watched.

  Others moved in around and in front of them.

  They watched the Jews come down the road like a catalog of colors. That wasn’t how the book thief described them, but I can tell you that that’s exactly what they were, for many of them would die. They would each greet me like their last true friend, with bones like smoke and their souls trailing behind.

  When they arrived in full, the noise of their feet throbbed on top of the road. Their eyes were enormous in their starving skulls. And the dirt. The dirt was molded to them. Their legs staggered as they were pushed by soldiers’ hands—a few wayward steps of forced running before the slow return to a malnourished walk.

  Hans watched them above the heads of the crowding audience. I’m sure his eyes were silver and strained. Liesel looked through the gaps or over shoulders.

  The suffering faces of depleted men and women reached across to them, pleading not so much for help—they were beyond that—but for an explanation. Just something to subdue this confusion.

  Their feet could barely rise above the ground.

  Stars of David were plastered to their shirts, and misery was attached to them as if assigned. “Don’t forget your misery …” In some cases, it grew on them like a vine.

  At their side, the soldiers also made their way past, ordering them to hurry up and to stop moaning. Some of those soldiers were only boys. They had the Führer in their eyes.